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MLS eager to show off Atlanta success story at All-Star Game

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ATLANTA (AP) The MLS All-Star Game is more than the league showing off its best players against Italian powerhouse Juventus.

It’s a chance to flaunt one of its biggest success stories.

The A-T-L.

Atlanta United has shattered just about every MLS attendance record since joining the league in 2017 , which made it a natural choice to host the All-Star Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Another mark could fall in Wednesday night’s match, expected to lure upwards of 70,000 fans to this technological marvel of a stadium.

[ MORE: Garber “hopeful” Crew will stay in Columbus ]

“That’s why the game is here,” said United defender Michael Parkhurst, one of five players from league-leading Atlanta picked for the MLS team. “It’s to showcase the city itself, the stadium, the atmosphere that we create here. It’s special.”

Indeed, there’s nothing unusual about drawing such a mammoth soccer crowd in Atlanta.

In its debut season, United shattered the league record by averaging 48,200 per game – more than doubling all but three other teams in MLS. The club is projected to go even higher this season, averaging nearly 52,000 through its first dozen home matches.

The top five individual game crowds in MLS history have all been in Atlanta, which has eclipsed 70,000 for every regular-season match in which the upper deck has been open . The target to beat for an All-Star Game is 70,728, which was the record turnout for the 2010 match at Houston’s NFL stadium.

If the weather forecast holds – there was a strong chance of thunderstorms – the camera lens-resembling roof will be closed to ensure a comfortable setting for both the players and the big crowd.

Too bad.

The complex structure only recently began operating properly, allowing it to open or close in less than 10 minutes .

Every other aspect of the $1.5 billion stadium has drawn rave reviews, setting it up to be one of the leading venues for the 2026 World Cup that will be largely hosted by the United States. The winning bid, which also includes Mexico and Canada, calls for six games to be held in Atlanta – including a semifinal.

The stadium has already developed quite a reputation in MLS, with its chanting, flag-waving fans showing off their passion while giving United a huge home-field edge.

“It’s surprising,” New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips said before a workout Tuesday at the stadium. “I heard a lot of talk before they came into the league about how it was going to be. I wasn’t sure, but playing here and watching them on TV, the support these players have is amazing.”

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Since the current All-Star Game format was adopted in 2005, pitting a team of MLS stars against a prominent club from Europe, the American-based league holds a 7-6 edge.

Of course, this game means a lot more to MLS than it does to the opponent.

Juventus, which is riding a streak of seven straight titles in Serie A, is merely tuning up for a league season than begins in less than two weeks. The Italian club already played two exhibitions in the U.S. as part of the International Champions Cup – beating Germany’s Bayern Munich and Portugal’s Benfica – and has one more friendly Saturday against Real Madrid before returning to Europe.

Juventus didn’t bring along five-time FIFA Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, acquired from Real Madrid a few weeks ago in a record transfer deal for a player older than 30.

Still recovering from the World Cup, Ronaldo remained in Italy to train, along with new teammates Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala.

Manager Massimiliano Allegri is confident that his squad is ready to make another title run in Serie A.

“There isn’t much to do,” he said through a translator. “We have the defenders. We have the midfielders. It’s just a matter of deciding who are the two or three in front who are basically going to put the ball in the goal.”

The MLS team also will be missing one of its top players – LA Galaxy star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who ranks second in the league with 15 goals.

The 36-year-old Swede chose to not to make the cross-country trip to Atlanta after playing three league matches over a nine-day span, saying he was more focused on leading his streaking team to the playoffs. Under league rules, he’ll also have to skip the Galaxy’s next match against Colorado on Saturday.

Commissioner Don Garber told reporters he was “disappointed” that Ibrahimovic would skip “the most important special event that the league has.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

For more AP soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/MLSsoccer

De Gea signs new Man United contract

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Dave stays.

David De Gea has finally signed a new contract at Manchester United.

After months of talks, the 28-year-old has agreed to a new four year contract, which also includes the option to extend by another year.

Speaking to the club website about extending his stay at Old Trafford, De Gea was delighted to finally sign the deal.

“It has been a privilege to spend eight years at this great club and the opportunity to continue my career at Manchester United is a genuine honor,” De Gea said. “Since I arrived here, I could never have imagined I would play over 350 games for this club. Now my future is fixed, all I want is to help this team achieve what I believe we can and win trophies again, together.

“As one of the senior players in the squad, I want to support and lead in any way that I can to assist the younger players, so they know what it means to play here. I still feel that I have so much more to achieve at the club and I truly believe that Manchester United can build on the club’s tradition of success and reward our fans for their support. I am committed to continue repaying the fans for all of the care that they’ve shown me during the good times and the bad.”

More to follow…

Mane: Feud with Salah is over

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Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are friends again.

Sort of.

Following Mane’s angry reaction to not being passed the ball by Salah in their win at Burnley before the international break, there were concerns that the relationship between the two star forwards would impact their play on the pitch.

But speaking to French outlet Canal+ after their 3-1 win against Newcastle United on Saturday, Mane put a lid on the matter.

“With Salah? It’s forgotten,” Mane said. “Sometimes you have to say things face to face. These are things that happen in football, sometimes it happens that I am not given the pass. But we have reconciled and become the good friends we were before.”

That’s that then.

Salah posted the following video ahead of the weekend, which says it all.

Mane scored twice on Saturday to continue his stunning start to the season, so it hasn’t impacted his form. But Salah, the Egyptian King and darling of Anfield, has come out of this worse.

Liverpool fans, generally, were on Mane’s side in this disagreement and the Senegalese attacker has been applauded for his response.

Will this impact Salah’s confidence and the fluidity of Liverpool front three? Probably not.

As Mane said, these things happen in football but it does prove that despite all of the success something has been brewing behind-the-scenes at Liverpool.

Arsenal “too scared” of Watford in collapse

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Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka admitted the Gunners were “too scared” of Watford as they collapsed in the second half.

Leading 2-0 at half time thanks to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal were totally outplayed in the second half as Watford roared back to draw 2-2 at Vicarage Road on Sunday.

Speaking after the game, Xhaka said the Arsenal players were not confident enough to see out the game.

“No-one wanted the ball. In the end we are happy to take a point,” Xhaka said. “We didn’t show our game in the second half, we were too scared… Every team in the Premier League is strong enough to score but you have to keep calm, to show good character, to be mentally strong. We weren’t today.”

If only this was a rare occurrence for Arsenal.

Under Unai Emery their defensive collapses have been frequent, and this issue even dates back to Arsene Wenger‘s final few seasons in charge.

Arsenal were their own worst enemies on Sunday.

Instead of playing the ball out of dangerous areas they tried to play short goal kicks time and time again and were caught in possession on several occasions. David Luiz gave away a penalty kick, Xhaka and Mateo Guendouzi were overrun in central midfield in the second half and in the end they were lucky to grab a point.

Trying the same things time and time again and expecting different results is just bonkers, and that is what this Arsenal squad is going.

Luiz, Bernd Leno, Sokratis and Xhaka are players Arsenal have built their defensive core around, and the same issues keep cropping up when they are in the team. Adding Luiz to the mix after losing Laurent Koscielny was a risk and it seems like a move which will backfire for the Gunners.

It is true that defenders Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are all close to returning from injury, so when that happens perhaps we will see a newfound defensive solidity and things will improve.

Then again, it’s likely neutral everywhere will be grabbing their popcorn whenever Arsenal play this season because you’re guaranteed entertainment at both ends of the pitch.

Galaxy hammer Sporting KC; Zlatan: “I’m the best ever in MLS”

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LA Galaxy smashed Sporting Kansas City 7-2 on Sunday, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a hat trick then called himself the best player in MLS history.

Just a casual Sunday for Zlatan, then…

Ibrahimovic, 37, scored a hat trick as LA raced into a 7-1 lead after falling 1-0 behind early on as Felipe Gutierrez scored both of Sporting’s goals.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Ibrahimovic was typically humble after his hat trick which means he now holds the record for the highest scoring season in Galaxy history with 26 goals.

“I think I am the best ever to play in MLS. And that’s without joking,” Ibrahimovic said. “Scoring goals is easy, you just have to be like Zlatan and it’s coming.”

Zlatan is now two goals behind Carlos Vela in the race for the Golden Boot in MLS with four games remaining, and he’s now scored 48 goals in 52 games since arriving in MLS.

Joe Corona, Uriel Antuna and Sebastian Lletget grabbed the Galaxy’s other goals as they won for the first time in five MLS games to boost their chances of making the playoffs in the congested Western Conference.

With the defeat Sporting KC’s hopes of reaching the playoffs is all but over.

Check out the highlights in full below. It will take quite a while to sort through the nine goals, so set down and soak in Zlatan’s brilliance.